Hydro-Quebec project facing 'green' opposition in Maine ahead of Tuesday's referendum

Protesters attend a news conference to show there support for overriding Gov. Janet Mills' veto of a bill that would have banned entities owned by foreign governments from influencing Maine elections, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. The bill was inspired by Hydro-Quebec's vast spending to convince Maine voters to defeat referendums that would sink Central Maine Power's controversial transmission project. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

A plan to export hydroelectricity from Quebec to Massachusetts is facing opposition from environmental groups in Maine -- where a 233-kilometre transmission line would be built -- despite the promise of major greenhouse gas reductions.

Maine residents are scheduled to vote in a referendum on Tuesday on the proposed interconnection line, which would bring 9.45 terawatt hours of electricity a year from Quebec's power grid, through Maine, to Massachusetts.

Hydro-Quebec says the project would cut three million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year -- the equivalent of taking 700,000 cars off the road -- but Maine's major environmental groups aren't convinced of the benefits.

Anya Fetcher, director of Environment Maine, says she worries about the impact of the proposed power lines through the northern part of her state, particularly the 85 kilometres of lines that would travel across the North Maine Woods.

"It's a precious ecosystem and it's an important place for Mainers," she said in a recent interview. "People live in and visit Maine because of its natural beauty. We have to protect this area."

Fetcher said she doesn't consider hydroelectricity to be a green source of energy, because of the impact of dam construction. She said she wishes the US$1 billion invested in the project had been used instead for solar and wind energy.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club's Maine chapter also oppose the project. That opposition saddens environmentalist Tom Rumpf, who worked for the Nature Conservancy in Maine for 21 years.

"There are sacrifices to be made -- I'm aware of that -- but on the whole, I believe (the project) will contribute to the decarbonization of electricity in New England," he said in a recent interview.

The line from Quebec to Massachusetts has obtained the support of regulatory authorities after a thorough analysis of its environmental impact, he said, adding that he believes the impact on plants and animals in Maine will be minimal. Rumpf, however, said that nuance is being lost in a polarized campaign.

Lobby groups have spent a total of US$94 million to influence voters, according to documents filed with the Maine Commission of Government Ethics and Election Practices -- a record for a referendum in the state.

Officially, groups in favour of the project have spent almost three times more than opponents. However, those figures may not be complete, as opposition group Stop the Corridor is engaged in a legal battle with the ethics commission to keep its donors confidential.

The campaign has seen exaggerated claims of the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity by Hydro-Quebec. A Florida-based company called NextEra has spent more than $20 million to encourage voters to block the project, and it operates a nuclear plant in New Hampshire that would face competition from the cheaper electricity carried by the Hydro-Quebec line.

Richard Bennett, a Republican state senator who opposes the project, said he's concerned about "absurd" arguments put forward by the group Mainers for Fair Laws. That group has received US$11.9 million in indirect funding from Central Maine Power Company, which has partnered with Hydro-Quebec to build the power lines.

Bennett said the group claims that a vote against the project would open the door to government taking guns from their owners, an interpretation rejected by multiple independent experts.

"It's an insult to the intelligence of citizens," he said. "The most far-fetched arguments are going around at the end of this campaign."

Mainers for Fair Laws did not respond to a request for comment.

Bennett said he's also concerned about the US$21.9 million spent by Hydro-Quebec in the campaign.

Hydro-Quebec said that spending is justified. "We're doing an information campaign because of the outrageous misinformation circulating about our energy and the project," Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman Lynn St-Laurent said.

If the project is rejected by Maine voters, it would be the second time Hydro-Quebec's plans to export power to the United States have failed. In 2019, Hydro-Quebec abandoned a plan to export power through New Hampshire because of public opposition.

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.

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